Filling Lake Mead with Mississippi River Water No Longer a Pipe Dream

Despite recent rains, the water level in Lake Mead – which supplies Las Vegas with 90% of its water – was 1,046.94 feet above sea level on Feb. 2. That’s only 28% of its full capacity. And cutting water use, even drastically, may not solve the problem. Because of climate change, some estimates predict that the Colorado River may deliver only half its current amount of water by the year 2100.

Lake Mead
Lake Mead
A 22-year drought in the American Southwest is sinking Lake Mead to depths it hasn’t seen since it was filled nearly 100 years ago, exposing several long-submerged bodies boats. (Image: azcentral.com)

Pumping Mississippi River water into Lake Mead has been suggested before. But as water levels drop – threatening to eventually cut off California, Arizona and Mexico from their Colorado River water allotments – and as engineering technology advances, large-scale river diversion doesn’t seem as much of a pipe dream as it once did.

In 2021, the Arizona state legislature actually passed a measure urging Congress to investigate pumping flood water from the Mississippi to the Colorado to boost its flow. Studies show that a project like this would be possible, though it would take decades of construction and billions of dollars. Maybe even trillions.

“I think it would be foolhardy to dismiss it as not feasible,” Richard Rood, professor of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering at the University of Michigan told the Cedar Rapids Gazette. “But we need to know a lot more about it than we currently do.”

Large-scale river diversion projects have been proposed in the US since the 1960s, when an American company sought to redistribute Alaskan water across the continent using canals and reservoirs. That plan never generated enough support – a fate shared by similar proposals in Minnesota and Iowa.

Still Too Pricey … For Now

In 2012, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation performed a Colorado River Basin analysis considering several solutions to the current drought – including importing water from the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.

Under the analyzed scenario, water would be diverted to Colorado’s Front Range and areas of New Mexico. That would cost at least $1,700 per acre-feet of water, potentially yield 600,000 acre-feet of water per year by 2060, and take 30 years to construct.

A decade later, Roger Viadero, an environmental scientist and engineer at Western Illinois University, calculated that moving this scale of water would require a pipe 88 feet in diameter – twice as long as a semi trailer – or a 100-foot-wide channel that’s 61 feet deep.

“As an engineer, I can guarantee you that it is doable,” Viadero told the Cedar Rapids Gazette. “But there are tons of things that can be done but aren’t ever done.”

Viadero’s team estimated the cost of buying enough water to fill up the Colorado River’s Lake Mead and Lake Powell at more than $134 billion, assuming a penny per gallon. Add to that heavy construction costs and the costs of powering the equipment needed to pump the water over the Western Continental Divide. Buying the land to secure water rights would be very costly, too.

Politics: The Other Problem

The political hurdles are also considerable. They include wetlands protections, endangered species protections, drinking water supply considerations, and interstate shipping protections. Precedents set by other diversion attempts – such as the ones that created the Great Lakes Compact, also cast doubt over the political viability of any large-scale Mississippi River diversion attempt.

And trans-national pipelines would also impact ecological resources. Lower Mississippi River flow means less sediment carried down to Louisiana, where it’s needed for coastal restoration. Diverting that water also means spreading problems, like pollutants, excessive nutrients, and invasive species such as Asian carp.

None of this even considers the most important question: Is there even enough water to spare? The Mississippi River basin may no longer even be a reliable answer to the Colorado River basin’s problem, since the Mississippi is drying up, too. Water levels are at or below the low-water threshold along a nearly 400-mile stretch of the river. This past year, sunken boats, such as the Diamond Lady riverboat casino, are surfacing like bodies are in Lake Mead.

“No one wants to leave the western states without water,” Melissa Scanlan, a freshwater sciences professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, told the Cedar Rapids Gazette. “But moving water from one drought-impacted area to another is not a solution.”

Growing Precedent

Still, there is hope. Last year, a Kansas groundwater management agency received a permit to truck 6,000 gallons of Missouri River water into Kansas and Colorado to recharge an aquifer. Several approved diversions already drain water from the Great Lakes. And in northwestern Iowa, a river has repeatedly been pumped dry by a rural water utility that sells at least a quarter of the water outside the state. And there

In July 2022, former Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed legislation investing $1.2 billion into projects that conserve water and bring more into the state. Among its provisions, the law granted Arizona’s water infrastructure finance authority to “investigate the feasibility” of potential out-of-state water import agreements.

And, as the tired adage goes, desperate times call for desperate measures. According to a two-year projection by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, by the end of July 2024, Lake Mead’s water level could fall to as low as 992 feet above sea level. That’s perilously close to dead pool (895 feet), the point when a reservoir is so low, gravity will no longer allow it to release water downstream. If and when Lake Mead hits this point, that will be dire news for downstream regions, including Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Diego, Tucson, and Mexico.

“It’s possible that the situation gets so dire that there is an amount of money out there that could overcome all of these obstacles,” Rhett Larson, an Arizona State University professor of water law, told the Cedar Rapids Gazette. “It might be in the trillions, but it probably does exist.”

In the meantime, researchers encourage more feasible and sustainable options, such as better water conservation, water recycling, and less agricultural reliance.

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